The night before the World Cup final I had told Marnus Labuschagne: “Miracles happen. You would have dreamed of playing for Australia in this match and finishing it. This is the stage, this is the day you have lived for. Miracles do happen.” And Marnus replied, “Amen!”
It’s been some journey for him. Every day there would be talk that he won’t be picked for the next match and as he said he was “unofficially dropped” five times this World Cup. In our chats, we would keep reiterating, “Those are out of your control’.
In the night, after the final, I texted him, “Miracles do happen!” And he replied, “Mate, that game was designed for me!”
It certainly was. He had to get out there, and bat without worries. Just bat. Travis Head was already flowing. Marnus’s job as I saw it was to just bat and silence the crowd. I heard him say later that the ‘silence in India is the greatest sound because you know you are on top!’. Typical cheeky Marnus.
I remember the first time I met him. My friend Blair Capelin, who was Queensland’s coach, had told me to look out for this lad, Marnus, “bit different”, he said. And so I go to the ground during a U-19 game between Queensland and New South Wales. I see a boy appealing for lbw from deep square leg. I called up my friend, ‘is your boy the one who is convinced that the batsman is plumb lbw from the boundary line?!’
“It sure sounds like him,” came the reply.
We had a couple of intense net sessions in Brisbane and I left for Sydney. My phone kept ringing off the hook. It was Marnus and he was ready to come to Sydney to work more. But I wasn’t in the mood to get into coaching that level of players due to some personal reasons at that time. So I kept shrugging him off, with one excuse or another. But this kid wouldn’t relent. He basically clung on to me I guess! And so I said okay, but listen if we are going to do this, we have to do it my way. It won’t be easy. Not that it deterred him and he came over soon.
I work on the physical, technical, mental, and emotional fronts – the four areas that I am interested in. A full-on overhaul of Labuschagne’s mental and technical game began. Physically he was okay but we wanted him to get a bit stronger.
Most fans who have watched Marnus only in the international arena would find it hard to believe that at that stage in his career, Marnus was pretty weak on the leg side. He might look so natural now in that region, but that wasn’t the case then.
There was a fear in him that he would get lbw when playing to the leg side. Mentally I had to teach Marnus how to get the ball to the leg side. The bowlers had caught up with his reluctance and were tucking him up. He was too wary about getting out; he would say, “I would miss and get lbw”.
I had to convince him that if he doesn’t play on the leg side, he won’t score runs as he grades up. The bowlers keep getting better as you move up, and you have to find your way now. Trust me son, work it out now.”
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It’s then I unleashed ‘The Virat Kohli shot drill’ on him! First, it was for getting that whip, getting him to become very comfortable with it. Once it burns into the muscle memory, then the actual play against the balls begins. Now, can anyone say he has a weakness there?! Now he was accessing all areas in the ground; he can still go instinctively inside-out through the off side as he became so good with it while trying to avoid the leg side. And then once the leg-side play came in, he could turn the ball anywhere.
I also had to make a food intervention. The boy loved his sugar! Heaps of sugar every time. He was willing to work so hard on his game, fitness everything but love for sugar wasn’t easy to quit. I told him, you can’t do it. But he says he likes it, he will work it off! l had to tell him that it wasn’t physical damage but this is not good for your brain, mate. You are out of control! When you don’t eat sugar you are down in the dumps. It’s got you by the throat. Best to lose it now. You wanted to know the behavioural pattern of top performers, right? They have control over their mind. And then he quit.
I also had him working with a mental conditioning coach, Alan Mantle, who works on mindfulness. It’s about developing a routine between the balls. How are you clearing it to think about the next ball? How to take one ball at a time? It could involve self-chats, whatever works, but a routine that he has worked on. He works his way to feel comfortable out there. Take every bit of information to play the most appropriate shot. We would spend hours talking about routine. He has continued to evolve.
His desire to play at this highest level has been quite something. Everyone would know how he made his Test debut against England as a concussion substitute to Steve Smith, who was hit by a Jofra Archer bouncer. What might not be known is at one stage it looked as if Smith might be ready to go back out. How quickly did Marnus turn and flee onto the field. Marnus told me later that he knew he had to get out quickly lest Smith changes his mind!
And of course, he was right away hit on the head by a Jofra bouncer. But Marnus whipped up almost in the same motion and had a look at Jofra, didn’t he? He was ready. We had prepared so well for that series and our thinking was he would play. That’s how you prepare. Not go, mop around on a tour, and see what happens. You prepare, thinking you are going to play. I knew he was ready. His team and the cricketing world realised that after that knock.
Good morning Australia pic.twitter.com/ma7xHpKnkw
— Marnus Labuschagne (@marnus3cricket) November 19, 2023
He prepared similarly for this World Cup too. Not worrying about if he will get a chance or not, prepare assuming you are in the playing XI. I also remember telling him earlier on in this tournament that he should give his utmost best in fielding. That he should save every single run he could. If I say that Marnus was the best all-round fielder for Australia in this World Cup, I don’t think I would be wrong.
I have not seen him get too emotionally down. Criticisms roll off like water from a duck’s back. He goes and spends his time with his young daughter, and forgets everything. He also believes that someone up there is moving the chips around for him. Someone gets concussed; he gets in. Someone is injured; he is in. Someone is deemed not suitable for the conditions; he gets in. Is that luck, divine intervention, I don’t know. All I know is that I am very proud of Marnus – it’s not easy to be in his position, not quite secure about the spot, but to give it all out there on the field. He is born to play cricket; he is in such deep passionate love with this game. A true ambassador for this sport.
As told to Sriram Veera